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Joel Kovel vs. the New York Times

“Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead”

— William Blake

I like to imagine Joel’s spirit, in triumphant benevolence on the arc of history, looking with the mercy of a good Christian upon the wretched and irredeemable soul of the New York Times, when it too gives up its ghost in the oncoming apocalypse which he prophesied and it prepares. “One is, after all, known by one’s enemies,” he wrote about the New York Review [1], and so it makes sense to re-read his recent obituary in this same light.

One close friend, John Clark, commented after reading the obituary: “I remember talking to Joel years ago right after he canceled his subscription to the New York Times. He said ‘I can’t take that much hegemony.'” And his daughter Molly wrote in a post on facebook, “I can only imagine the mingled response of pride and disdain with which my dear departed father would greet his own obituary in the New York Times, an institution he had critiqued a thousand times over his life.” And so it is owed to Kovel’s memory to reflectupon what this central organ of empire has to say about its lifelong antagonist. I imagine Joel speaking to the Times in the words of William Blake, whose ‘Proverbs of Hell’ are placed throughout this text as guideposts to navigate the liberal inferno: “He who has suffer’d you to impose on him knows you.”

I remember one of the first things I learned from Joel Kovel, in a series of study groups at St. Mary’s Church in Harlem: that you can measure the power of ideas by the energy spent suppressing them. By that standard, his recent obituary by Sam Roberts in the Times is testament to a life well lived, as it suppresses and/or silences his most powerful contributions to humanity, even under the pretext of honoring them. His obituary on first read seems not so bad; indeed isn’t it the goal of all good citizens to lead a life fit for printing in this unparalleled paper of record? But if we read between the lines, or if we suffer from the lonely affliction of actually reading books and/or knowing history, then the New York Times reminds us of the haunting quote by Walter Benjamin, that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.”

Yet this essay isn’t written to rescue Joel Kovel’s memory; for that, I believe, is secure. His own words are recorded in a dozen books, including his own memoir.[2] But for our own sakes, not only for Joel’s respect but for our own – because the bell tolls for all of us –  we should reflect on the fight he waged over the course of his lifetime with this bourgeois institution par excellence, and settle the score.

Part 1: From White Racism to Red Hunting in the Promised Land

Our story begins with Kovel’s first book, White Racism: a Psychohistory, which was celebrated by the New York Times, and nominated for a national book award. [3] To date this is his most popular book, often the only book by Joel folks have heard of, probably because he wasn’t a full-fledged revolutionary when he wrote it. But it contains radical and uncomfortable truths which bear repeating, especially those which were not acknowledged by the obituary. For instance, let’s recall this passage written in 1984, which carries new gravity after Barack Obama’s eight years in power on the throne of US empire:

“one might wonder whether the system will find some way …. to muddle through the crisis without undergoing any basic change. This would mean a removal to yet another stage of abstraction and would signal the full triumph of metaracism – a step in which the cultural superego, capitalizing once more on strife, will incorporate strife into itself, make structural what had been dynamic, turn it out again in a new symbolic attenuation, and sublimate the selves of men into still further reaches of technocratic banality. This possibility, scarcely less unhappy than that of fascism, would bear with it even more of that extroverted aggression upon nature and other peoples…” (White Racism, p. 228)

Thus not only is white racism “built into the very character of Western Civilization,” as the Times obituary deems fit for print, but something more too: it is capable of overcoming its own contradictions via a victory of metaracism… Metaracism attains victory by sublimating its internal antagonistic contradictions into greater violence against nature and other peoples. I can think of no better analysis or epitaph of the Obama administration, which overcame white racism in the United States at the expense of a kill list, offshore drilling, record deportations, the invasion and destruction of Libya, the entrenchment of the surveillance state, etc.

The publication of White Racism got Kovel invited into the lofty inner circles of the New York intelligentsia, a role which he tried out but ultimately could not abide by. He knew from Blake to “expect poison from the standing water.” As described in his memoir:

“I produced a dozen reviews for [the Sunday Book Review] over the next decade… This was no more than a reaping of the harvest of Psy to which many intellectuals of liberal society are addicted. All it requires is an antenna for the angst-ridden seams of our culture, a facility with the jargon of subjectivism, and above all, the propensity to defer or blunt any clear answer to our dilemmas…. In other words, keep it complicated, keep it vague and fuzzy, do not let the mind, especially of the young, seize upon any clear understanding of the world such as might conduce to a transformative course of action” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream p. 162)

He wrote one other popular book, “A Complete Guide to Therapy,” which the New York Times reviewed positively, with one interesting twist that he recounts in his memoir.[4] But as Kovel became increasingly involved in the anti-war movement and the radical psychoanalytic community, he gradually and then suddenly moved away from his spot in the limelight.  This culminated in his next book – The Age of Desire: Reflections of a Radical Psychoanalyst a both daringly personal and audaciously “transhistorical” work, in which he ruthlessly attacked the bourgeois assumptions of the mental health industry, and ‘came out’ as a radical seeking a synthesis of Marx and Freud. Needless to say, this didn’t endear him to the central organ of the Empire State:

“As the celebrated psychoanalytic culture-critic stopped being satisfied with laying out contradictions but insisted on fundamental – even revolutionary – change, the invitations from The New York Times Book Review faded like morning dew, and the copious praise that had accompanied the arrival of my first two books swiftly evaporated…” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream, p167)

Not content to be merely ignored, Joel continued his diagnosis of the deep personality structures and character types of the country and city he lived in. One book which the Times obituary doesn’t mention at all is Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of Americapublished in 1994, and it’s no mistake. This book identified the most salient feature in US history as anti-communism, and traced its roots to the Puritan genocide of indigenous peoples of North America. It ended his career as a member of the respected New York intellectual elite. This book was preemptively “shredded” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review which managed to miss the point entirely; and like his obituary, made him out to be a mistaken, confused, and even “obsessive,” since it could not deal with the prophetic visionary he was becoming. As Kovel remembers: “The Times took it seriously enough to run a second-page review in the Sunday book section. . . . actually making up some content in order to smear the work, the three years of work embedded in it dutifully sinking like the proverbial stone. . . . its ruin was secured by the one-two punch of a savage review. . . . followed by immediate removal from circulation by publisher Harper Collins, prop., Rupert Murdoch.”[5] But as consolation, if the capitol of capitalism rejected that book, it was welcomed warmly in Havana by Fidel Castro himself, to whom Joel personally presented a copy.

Part 2: From Nicaragua to Ecosocialism

Three other books which get no mention by the Times include In Nicaragua, Against the State of Nuclear Terror, and History and SpiritEach are path-breaking in their own right, on very different themes and in very different styles, and each deserves much greater attention than I can give them here. And yet a thread runs through them, one which would find culmination in the political world-view and movement to which Kovel would dedicate decades of his life: Ecosocialism.

The author of Kovel’s obituary describes him as a “zealot” for the causes he believed in, “even if, as in the case of ecosocialism, its very definition and the collateral demand for an appealing alternative to capitalism were not self-evident.”[6]

“Funny how it comes down to taste,” as Kovel wrote in The Age of Desire [7]. For such is the prevailing pathology at the New York Times that an alternative to capitalism will never appeal to them. (Perhaps it will be appealing to them, as the saying goes, once all the rivers run dry and they realize that they cannot drink money.) If the New York Times was able to acknowledge Kovel as a founding father of ecoscialism, they missed a much bigger point – that the future will be ecosocialist, or there will be no future! [8] Or as the subtitle of Kovel’s book on ecosocialism has it: “The end of capitalism or the end of the world?” If mass extinction and perpetual war are not enough, if world-record-breaking inequality, ocean acidification, methane plumes, and melting poles do not add up to the need for an alternative, then nothing will. No matter that radical anti-capitalist mass movements are present on every continent. We really shouldn’t expect the New York Times research staff to find evidence of an appealing anti-capitalist alternative – after all they are still too busy finding evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Meanwhile the allegation that Joel didn’t clearly define ecosocialism is rather laughable. I am reminded of Shake-speare; “Bring in the crows to peck the eagles!”[9] Where does mockery end and defamation of character begin? Time will tell: The Enemy of Nature has been translated into Turkish, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese. While it’s tempting to shame the author of his obituary by repeating his fantastically garbled “definition” of ecosocialism (which is probably a hasty regurgitation of what the author skimmed on wikipedia), tempting to mock it word by word, it would be a lousy point of departure, unworthy of Kovel’s vision. “Eagles don’t hunt mosquitoes,” as Hugo Chavez insisted. Curious readers are encouraged to return to the source.

Part 3: Overcoming Zionism

What is most important in Kovel’s obituary is the silence. He dedicated over a decade of his life to criticizing the state of Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism. About this, the obituary says not a single word, except to grudgingly acknowledge the title of his book on his subject, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine. The imperial hubris of the New York Times may not recognize its own gravedigger in the doctrine of ecosocialism. But it does acknowledge a mortal enemy in Kovel’s anti-Zionism, about which it is wisely silent. And I would like to thank Sam Roberts and the New York Times for helping me to understand this; that Kovel’s most powerful contribution has been to strike at the heart of the settler colonial pathology around which the New World Order turns. To say what no one else dares: that racist states don’t have the right to exist.

Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! did far better than the New York Times in commemorating Kovel’s life, by quoting him on her show about this most taboo of subjects:

“And I feel that the notion of Zionism, as that there is this kind of destiny of the Jewish people to have their own state, is just a wrong idea. And it’s an idea that requires signing on to imperialism. It means signing on to ethnic cleansing. It means—despite everything that has been said about it, it means basically becoming a racist situation, where you’re oppressing an indigenous population and depriving them of their right to existence, and then thinking that somehow you can go ahead and have a decent life on that basis. And you can’t, in my view. And I join hands with those people who feel that the time has come to basically think of Israel in the same category as South Africa, as a state that just has gone wrong and needs replacement.”

Of course this cannot be said in modern, polite and liberal Western society. Kovel lost his endowed faculty position in the Alger Hiss chair at Bard College for this, a story he recounts in his memoir and in more detail in an essay titled “Sacked by Bard.” We can imagine Blake counseling Kovel through his tough times with Leon Botstein and Michael Lerner: “always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.” In addition to losing his job, Overcoming Zionism was banned by its distributor, and to this day it only circulates thanks to publishers in the UK and Canada. Talk about a rave review!

In the light of this censorship, and in the darkness of the ongoing atrocities carried out by what Max Blumenthal calls the “Jewish State in Israel and the Levant” (JSIL), it is very much worthwhile to reprint and reread Kovel’s “Theses on Anti-Zionism” (from Overcoming Zionism, p198-208)

Theses on Anti-Zionism

1. The most basic principle is respect for the inherent dignity of each and every person. . . .

2. “Basic principles” incorporate the categories of responsibility and justice. . . .

3. No group of people is inherently better than any other, or “special” in any way. . . .

4. No amount of previous suffering can legitimate present injustice. . . .

5. No state has an absolute right to exist; hence all states are to a degree, illegitimate. . . .

6. States may either be relatively or absolutely illegitimate. . . .

7. A racist state is absolutely illegitimate. . . .

8. Israel, as a Jewish state, is a racist state. . . .

9. The problem, then, is with Zionism and the Jewish state as such, and not its illegal occupation of the West Bank. . . .

10. Israel does not have the right to exist. . . .

11. The point, however, is to change it, which is to say, to dissolve the Jewishness of the state. For this, one does not smash or trample Zionism; one overcomes it, and frees people from its chains.

Today, Kovel’s theses have acquired a historic and moral weight almost akin to Lenin’s April Theses, and share a symmetrical history. When first advanced, they were ridiculed by enemies, scorned by moderates, and repressed even by allies.[10] In time these theses are becoming clear and dear to friends, common sense to moderates, and in need of urgent discussion even by enemies.[11] First impossible, then inevitable: Today as the New York Times blames the Palestinians for being massacred, and as the Israeli cabinet meets in an underground bunker, Kovel’s theses urge us to turn a genocidal massacre into revolutionary transformation. This Bolshevik of of Anti-Zionism counsels: A Single Democratic State and Revolution! “Zionist power, like any other, evolves and devolves. Victory depends on understanding its ways and seizing the emergent moment to actively intervene in order to hasten downfall.” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream, p. 322)

A postscript is necessary however, underscoring the urgency of these theses and elevating them to a new level of explanatory power. Kovel finished writing Overcoming Zionism while living and working in South Africa, and this historical comparison between the racist states of Israel and apartheid South Africa anchors his analysis, as expressed in his interview with Amy Goodman. But as the years went by, his perspective changed, along with that of many others. Like Lenin he also aspired to be “as radical as reality itself.” Because while apartheid South Africa depended absolutely on Black labor, Israel has no more use for Palestinians, who have been replaced long ago by African and Asian labor. Thus the most relevant historical parallel to modern Israel has become not apartheid South Africa, but something else. Gaza is a concentration camp, and this is no longer a metaphor but a reality which the New York Times celebrates in a way that would make Goebbels proud –  by blaming it on the Palestinians. “The world now demands that Jerusalem account for every bullet fired at the demonstrators,” writes Bret Stephens for the Times, “without offering a single practical alternative for dealing with the crisis.”[12] And so the only just alternative becomes more practical with every passing day. “One of my fondest wishes,” wrote Kovel in his memoir, “has been to live long enough to see the collapse of Israel. I don’t see this happening in my lifetime, but the freedom to dream is itself life-giving…” (p322)

Part 4: From Psychohistory to Prophecy

“Dr. Kovel came in last with three.”The Times obituary ends on this note as if to say that Kovel’s life ended in failure; as if his career could be summarized and concluded with the fact that he lost to Ralph Nader in the Green Party nomination for President in 2000. But if Joel Kovel died at 81, he is alive and well in 2018. In 2001, he wrote with Michael Lowy an Ecosocialist Manifesto in which they posed the question of the possibility of “an ecosocialist international.” In the fall of 2017, over one hundred delegates from 19 countries came together in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and launched the First Ecosocialist International. The imperial bourgeois intelligentsia has no awards or recognitions to offer for this kind of world-historic accomplishment. So much the better. In the last six months, the seeds of this new International have been sown from coast to coast; from New York City to Los Angeles, and from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi.

For the truth is that the mind which has passed from this world was one of the most important ever produced by New York City. That surely sounds like an exaggeration. But this psychohistorian knew how the world turns. In comparing Joel’s life and legacy to those of his more-famous contemporaries (for instance Woody Allen), and in reflecting upon how they are remembered in this capitalist city, we may recall the words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:

“where the market-place begins, there begins also the noise of the great actors, and the buzzing of the poison-flies. In the world even the best things are worthless without those who make a side-show of them: these showmen, the people call great men. Little do the people understand what is great — that is to say, the creator. But they have a taste for all showmen and actors of great things. Around the creators of new values revolves the world: — invisibly it revolves.”

The New York Times celebrates the showmen of the end of the world. And woe unto them, for they have their consolation! (Luke 6:24) Beside them, Kovel moves invisibly, a creator of new values. Stanley Diamond called him “one of the few contemporary theorists who is capable of the grand synthesis of Marx and Freud.” In ecosocialism, he is not only the co-founder of an international movement, but his insight and exposition of the intrinsic value of nature is a keystone to an arch connecting the revolutionary ideologies of the industrialized world and the cosmovisions of indigenous peoples. In Israel-Palestine, that tumor at the heart of the world’s soul, he is a doctor whose diagnosis of cancer and praxis of care will only grow more powerful over time; not only for One State and Revolution, but for healing both history and spirit.

Around such new values may a new world system be founded; so may an ecosocialist mode of production emerge from the ruins of this patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist empire which the New York Times represents. If humanity survives the gauntlet of mass extinction and world war, it will look back upon Kovel as one of the greatest minds before the fall, a “genius activist [who] only comes around ever 500 years” as his friend Colia Clark wrote. To this illustrious heritage, one can only add the snide and smug obituary in the New York Times as further proof that he was a man ahead of his times; a prophet without honor in his own country. Joel’s stature as a giant was clear to those who spoke at his memorial at St. Mary’s church in Harlem. He has been canonized by Reverend Billy, baptized by Reverend Earl Kooperkamp, and eulogized as a prophet by Reverend Jim Forbes. As Blake knew and Kovel too, “what is now proved, was once only imagined.”

To be honest, I had hoped that the Times wouldn’t write him an obituary. Then he could have joined the illustrious company of his favorite American author, Herman Melville, who never got an obituary in the paper of record of the city he was born in. Like Melville, Kovel wrote too close to the truth. Captain Ahab is still at the helm of the Empire State; “his means are sane, his motive and his object mad.” And so we conclude with another fond dream, that the New York Times may go down like the Pequod, representative of capitalist society, drowned in the rising tides it brought upon itself in a hopeless war against nature – and the final sick soul of liberalism will, before drowning, nail the wings of the sky-hawk of Zionism to the masthead, “his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab,” to be swallowed up forever by the all-forgiving oceanic agape. [13] 

Amazing grace!

P.S. Not that we should leave our dreams to chance. His daughter Molly told me a story that once, many years ago, she got into an argument with her father about the timetable of revolution. She believed that it was right around the corner, while Joel was less optimistic, insisting it was still a ways off. He cautioned her with patience, but hedged his bets, requesting that just in case he was wrong, she save him a bomb for the New York Times. William Blake insisted that “a dead body, revenges not injuries,” but he also reminded us that “the busy bee has not time for sorrow.”

Notes. 

[1]  “No paranoia, this. I once had a patient close to the directorate of the New York Review who reported after attending a dinner amongst them that my name had come up, sparking a general outburst of hostility. One is, after all, known by one’s enemies.” The Lost Traveller’s Dream, p176

[2]  Quoted extensively in this essay. In form or content there is not another book quite like it. A lesser man would have made himself look better; a great man shines humbly and invincibly through its pages. Blake again:“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

[3]  Even today it remains probably his most appreciated book in he mainstream, to Joel’s expressed confusion. “To this day I remain amazed the book was so well-received, given the shabbiness of its theoretical framework.” The Lost Traveller’s Dream, p 163

[4] “Praised by the New York Times, A Complete Guide to Therapy was the most successful of my works in terms of sales and foreign editions – and the only one written with commercial success in mind, the goal being to raise funds to send Jonathan and Erin to college. There was one catch. The original title, A Critical Guide to Therapy, was nixed by the Book of the Month Club, which otherwise loved the book and wanted to buy 25,000 copies – provided I changed one and only one word: ‘Critical.’ This had to go, since no book ever sold in the United States with that word in the title. So it was to be a Complete Guide, or no deal. How dare they! I moped and groused, I cursed the damnable pragmatism that defiled our culture, and concluded in about half an hour… well, everyone has his price, has to choose his proper battlefield, etc, and gave in. Happily, the Germans would only take it for translation in the original version, giving me the satisfaction of seeing Kritische Leitfaden zur Psychoterapiepublished by the culture that gave humanity the Third Reich.” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream, p148)

[5] (The Lost Traveller’s Dream, pages 167 and 271)

[6]    “Dr Kovel, A Founder of Ecosocialism, is Dead at 81,” by Sam Roberts, The New York Times, May 4, 2018

[7]    “Why fret at all, considering that I had it, as they said, made? No, that was out of the question, less for political, moral, or intellectual reasons than because I found it disgusting. Funny how it comes down to taste, which is about as concrete as one can get.” The Age of Desire, p31

[8]    “The Future Will be Ecosocialist – Because Without Ecosocialism there will be No Future,” by Joel Kovel, 2011,

[9]  Coriolanus, Act 3, Scene 1

[10] “For when Overcoming Zionismwas published in 2007, I would guess that no more than 1% of Americans would have affirmed the argument for One State put forth by that book. All kinds of peoples, friends as well as foes, were advising me that the doggedness mentioned just above amounted in this case to a barking at the moon of an endlessly remote desire. Nobody, that is ‘really’ wanted anything other than two separate states. But what is real about ‘really’? I regarded this then, and still do, as a manifestation of what Sartre called the ‘practico-inert,’ that sedimentation of thought in order not to confront either the nightmare or the hope of history, thought unable to see beyond the dead-end of a Jewish State (which by the way, Sartre, reeling from the Holocaust, endorsed.) But there is a dustbin for really bad ideas, and more and more people are ready to add one of the worst, Zionism, to it.” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream p326) There is even a notable symmetry between those who counseled unity of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in early 1917, and those who counseled unity with liberal Zionists in 2007, at the very moment when a clear break was most necessary; and more – when what was necessary was the foundation of a new kind of state altogether, based on a radical praxis rooted in the most sophisticated philosophical inquiry and expressed in the most practical direct action. Kovel explains: “… the argument that was used against publication of Overcoming Zionism by liberals, namely, that putting forth radical views such as mine would undercut efforts by such as Rabbi Lerner to build coalitions of well-meaning ‘spiritual progressives.’ To this I would say, that such undercutting was exactly my intention insofar as such coalitions included a dominant strand of ‘soft anti-Zionism,’ which means, logically, soft Zionism as well, the kind of wishy-washy ‘I feel your pain’ pabulum that blunts the ruthless criticism necessary to do the job and benefits the Jewish State. With declining support for Israel across the world, the validity of an unrelenting critique of Zionism can no longer be doubted. The history of Israel’s conquest of Palestine is a harsh, blood stained history, and the more people realize this, the more ready we will be to bring a just end to all forms of racism.” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream, p328)

[11]  “To be sure, the wealth and power commanded by the Zionist power structure remains immense, and extends across the entire range of state and civil society. But the times are definitely, and structurally, changing. It was sheer joy to see my good friend Phil Weiss’ web-zine,MondoWeiss, reporting in 2014 the results of a Brookings Poll that 34% of a sample of more than one thousand Americans in 2013 now affirm a One State Solution for Israel/Palestine, a rise from 24% over the past year, while 39% affirm the Two State Solution, unchanged from the last year. No less remarkable, fully 71% of respondents affirm a One State Solution in the event that a Two State Solution is not possible – which Overcoming Zionismamong other works, argues is precisely the case.” (The Lost Traveller’s Dream p326)

[12]  “Gaza’s Miseries Have Palestinian Authors,” by Bret Stephens, The New York Times, May 16, 2018

[13]  “But as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast, leaving a few inches of the erect spar yet visible, together with long streaming yards of the flag, which calmly undulated, with ironical coincidings, over the destroying billows they almost touched; – at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” (Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, as quoted by Joel Kovel in “Suffering a Sea-change,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, June 2010)

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